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December 2018

counterpart

Counterpart is an interesting series on Starz that is a bit out of my comfort zone. I began watching it because it has Oscar winner J.K. "Schillinger" Simmons in a dual role. It's a hybrid, part espionage thriller, part sci-fi parallel worlds tale. It is admittedly quite ingenious, but a lot of it is over my head. I tend to get lost in the plots of espionage thrillers ... can't follow what's going on ... and the sci-fi angle doesn't help, since it expands the thriller in ways that exponentially increase my confusion level. At a basic level, I'm always wondering which of the parallel worlds we are in from one scene to the next. And Counterpart is not like my beloved Philip K. Dick stories, where the parallel worlds have a hallucinatory feel.

Well, Simmons and the rest of the cast (Olivia Williams, Sara Serraiocco, Stephen Rea, Lotte Verbeek, Jamie Bamber, Richard Schiff, Jacqueline Bisset, and many others) kept me interested through Season One. Interested, but confused. And I've stuck with it through about half of Season Two. The most recent episode, the 16th overall, was directed by series creator Justin Marks for the first time, so you know it was going to be a big deal. As if to emphasize the unique nature of this episode, J.K. Simmons is absent from everything except Previously On. The episode, "Twin Cities", takes us back to the beginning of the story, when the world split in two. By the end of the episode, I had a much clearer understanding of the basis for the show. I wish I'd seen it 16 episodes ago. Thus, I was mystified by a review from Robin Burks which appeared on Screen Rant.

As Burks noted, "This episode explained many of the mysteries that surrounded Counterpart in its first season with a focus on what happens next." But then Burks added, "Most shows would not give up their mysteries so early." Well, this was Episode 16, and it was the first time we were given any clue about what the hell is going on, so for me, at least, it was far from early.

The question is, will I find subsequent episodes more interesting, now that I've gotten the backstory? Ask me in four more episodes.

I should add that somewhere along the way, Starz has become quite the network for original series. Ash vs. Evil Dead, Outlander, Counterpart, Vida ... and those are just the ones I watch.

 


movies, 1969

The San Francisco Chronicle ran a set of columns on popular culture in 1969. Mick LaSalle got to examine movies from that year. He noted that the old Production Code was finally dumped in late 1968, and that studios that were losing money looked to younger filmmakers: "This combination, within the industry, of no censorship and a willingness to innovate would bring about a brief but important golden age." He then proceeded to look at a few of the best movies of 1969 ... "[W]hen you consider some of the best movies of 1969, the past doesn’t seem that far away at all."

The movies he mentioned were Anne of the Thousand Days, Army of Shadows, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Easy Rider, Goodbye Columbus, Midnight Cowboy, Salesman, They Shoot Horses, Don't They, and Topaz. It's an idiosyncratic list, as it should be. I've written about two of these on this blog.

Army of Shadows:

This tale of the French resistance is purposely low-key; you don’t come here for action-packed heroics. Instead, you get ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, making life-or-death decisions (in truth, mostly death in the short term), living under assumed names, their actions unknown even to their closest family. There is an inevitable feeling to the fates of these people. Knowing, as we do with hindsight, that the Nazis eventually lose, and that the Resistance helped expedite the Nazi failure, isn’t much good to the characters, who all know they are unlikely to see that victory. 

Salesman:

In my formative years as a film major in the early 70s ... I was a real believer in cinéma vérité, and I didn't spend much time questioning the "reality" of what was on the screen. More than 40 years later, I've seen a lot of cinéma vérité, and I no longer trust it in quite the same way. I'm more aware of the artist's manipulations than I was in my more naive years. If I had seen Salesman when I was 19, I would have loved it. Now, the "vérité" seems, not false exactly, but concocted. Its truths are the ones the filmmakers want to put forward, just like with every movie. And if I take away the aura of reality, Salesman is a documentary that takes a little too long to makes its points. The more reflective salesmen have insights into their own lives, but those insights feel casually slipped it, as if they weren't any more important than the other scenes in the movie. That's part of the trick, of course, to make it seem like the camera just happened to be there to record the men. And the artistry of the film is hidden behind the theory of its execution.

Of LaSalle's other choices, I've seen Butch Cassidy and Midnight Cowboy. I'm not a fan of either, and have a special dislike for Cassidy. I've also seen Easy Rider and liked it OK. That gives me four movies to check out.

What are my favorite 1969 movies? Thanks for asking. At the top are two that I listed in that long-ago Facebook Fave Fifty project.

The Sorrow and the Pity (#2 on that list):

The film also approaches one my favorite subjects, the vagaries of memory. People tell stories about what happened to them 25 years earlier; other people tell stories that contradict the story you just heard. Some people make grandiose claims based on “facts", only to have the interviewer gently contest those “facts” with facts of his own that put the lie to the original speaker.

Ultimately, The Sorrow and the Pity puts us in the position of thinking about how we might have reacted in that situation. We might see ourselves as heroic, and the mythology tells us most French people were indeed heroes. But we also see that the myth is often more false than true, and that ordinary people act in ordinary ways under extraordinary circumstances, when to be ordinary is to be a collaborator.

The Wild Bunch (#8):

After The Wild Bunch, it was impossible to look at westerns the same way. It dealt with the end of an era, but there was nothing new in that; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, from the same period, trod similar ground. But the freeze-frame that concludes Butch Cassidy allows our nostalgia to survive. (“A freeze-frame!”, David Thomson wrote. “You can hear Peckinpah’s sneer. He might slow down the fatal frames, but that is only so we can see every bullet bursting in flesh and blood.”) The excessive violence at the end of The Wild Bunch rubs our noses in the era’s end; nothing seems to survive. After that, what else is possible? From that point on, if you made a western, you had to deal with the line The Wild Bunch drew between then and now.

I think one problem with the recent Magnificent Seven remake is that it acted like The Wild Bunch had never been made.

Army of Shadows is my 3rd-favorite movie of 1969. Coming in at #4:

On Her Majesty's Secret Service:

The worst 007 (George Lazenby), combined with one of the handful of best Bond Girls (Diana Rigg), a Bond that is more human than usual, a love story that is touching without getting in the way, and some of the best actions scenes ever to appear in a Bond movie. If it wasn’t for Lazenby, this would be a contender for best James Bond movie of all time.

So, I'm now building a list of 1969 movies I should watch. Of course, like most "requests" (I'm acting like LaSalle requested that I watched the four of his choices I've missed), it may take me five years to get there. (Anyone reading this who wants to recommend a 1969 movie, that's what the comments section is for!). Meanwhile, here are some other movies from 1969 I have never seen:

Kes, Adalen 31, In the Year of the Pig, Model Shop, Medium Cool.

And, since it's Oscar season, here are some Oscar winners from that year I haven't seen:

Hello, Dolly, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Cactus Flower. I have to say those don't look all that great to me.

And finally, I'll add two of the top grossing films in the U.S. that I haven't seen, one which I would like to see, one which I wouldn't: Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, and Paint Your Wagon.

 


where do we go from here

[T]he Movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, "Why are there forty million poor people in America?" And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, "Who owns the oil?" You begin to ask the question, "Who owns the iron ore?" You begin to ask the question, "Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two thirds water?" These are words that must be said.

-- Martin Luther King

I've posted this the last couple of Martin Luther King Jr. Days. I used to assign it to my students. It still hasn't lost its relevance.


tv quickie

Quick thoughts on three favorite Sunday shows that are all disappointing in their own way.

Outlander has one more episode in Season 4, which has turned out to be the worst so far. "Worst" is harsh, for the show retains much of its appeal (i.e., Claire and Jamie Fraser). But this season takes place mostly in colonial America, and the folks in charge don't seem to know what to do with slavery or Native Americans. A few episodes take place on a family plantation, and here, Outlander is only marginally better than Gone with the Wind. In fact, the black "characters" (most of them don't rise to even the level of an identifiable character) exist mostly to show how the white heroine is disgusted by slavery. That is, the problem with slavery isn't being a slave, it's being a sensitive white person. Meanwhile, the Native Americans are never more than plot devices. I understand that there is only so much time to squeeze in everything from the books on which the series is based, but this is worse than nothing.

Shameless returns for the second half of Season 9, also known as The Season Where Emmy Rossum Leaves the Show. Shameless has been on a downward spiral for a long time, now. It took longer than usual for a Showtime series, but it's barely worth watching now. I'm sticking with it until the end of the season ... I feel I owe it to Rossum. But it's a shadow of its former excellence.

SMILF just began its second season. It's a unique half-hour charmer, unlike most other shows, and Frankie Shaw, who created, writes, and at times directs, while taking on the title character, is a revelation. It's the one show of these three that looks to still be at the top of its game. Except ... there are accusations of misconduct on the set, and you can't watch SMILF without remembering that fact.

 


hair (miloš forman, 1979)

The movie version of Hair occupies an odd place in both movie history and U.S. cultural history as a whole. When the stage play came out (1967 Off Broadway, 1968 Broadway), it was well-received by critics and garnered two Tony nominations (it lost to 1776). It ran for 1,750 performances on Broadway, and 1,997 performances in London. The original Broadway cast album sold 3 million copies and won a Grammy. Various companies toured ... it arrived in San Francisco in 1969, and some of my friends went to see it.

I didn't go with them. I was a purist hippie-wannabe, and didn't understand how hippies could be accurately represented in a Broadway play, which seemed like the antithesis of hippie. (For what it's worth, I probably still think that.) Like some old Get Offa My Lawn geezer, my 16-year-old self was cranky about the existence of Hair.

Now I've finally seen Hair. Aficionados will point out that the movie version isn't the same thing. As Wikipedia points out, "The film's plot and soundtrack both differed greatly from those of the original musical stage play", adding that the creators claimed "Any resemblance between the 1979 film and the original Biltmore version, other than some of the songs, the names of the characters, and a common title, eludes us". This is not the first time a stage play has been changed on its way to the screen; I just point this out to clarify that when I say I've seen Hair, I mean the movie.

The film Hair was released in 1979, long after the period Hair recreates. I may have been suspicious of the original, but clearly many people saw it as an accurate representation of the times, the music, the people. They were operating within the frame of the play ... there was no distance, it was a story about the present. Forman can't do this, because 1979 isn't 1968. He tries to recapture 60s by offering a version of a version. Hair wasn't the 60s, it was a play about the 60s (a Broadway musical, ferchrissake), and the movie isn't a version of the 60s, it's a version of a Broadway musical about the 60s. I can be forgiven for thinking the movie Hair has about as much to do with the 60s as Happy Days had with the 50s.

I will seem silly, but a few minutes into the movie, I thought to myself, "This is a musical!" Duh, to be sure, but that was just one more reason I wouldn't like it, and for some reason that hadn't occurred to me.

Can I be at all fair to this movie? Probably not. The best I can do is point out the things I liked. I've always been a fan of "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In", the 5th Dimension hit, although again, I knew less than I realized ... I thought the two songs belonged together, and was surprised to find that "Aquarius" was the opening song while "Let the Sunshine In" was the closer. In between were a lot of forgettable songs. The "famous" ones don't fare much better. Awhile ago, when talking to my six-year-old grandson about silly songs (he knew plenty, he's a kid, I wanted him to appreciate that we had silly ones, too), I gave as an example "Good Morning Starshine", a hit for Oliver that was truly stupid ("Glibby gloop gloopy, Nibby Nabby Noopy, La La La Lo Lo. Sabba Sibby Sabba, Nooby abba Nabba Le Le Lo Lo. Tooby ooby walla, nooby abba nabba, Early mornin' singin' song"). I didn't know if came from Hair ... I really was clueless about all this. Anyway, it's just as stupid "in context".

As for the performers, Treat Williams is defeated by a truly awful wig (ah, the irony). Ren Woods does a find job with "Aquarius". It was fun seeing performers who are still well-known ... Annie Golden from Orange Is the New Black, Richard Bright (Al Neri in the Godfather movies), Charlotte Rae from The Facts of Life. Not much, really, to get me through two hours.

I did find the finale (apparently one of the things changed completely from the original) at first stirring and then inspiring, but then, I'm not sure you can fuck up "Let the Sunshine In" ... I once saw the drag group Sluts-a-Go-Go sing it, incense burning, at the Mabuhay Gardens and it brought a tear to my eye:

Here's the hit, minus the two hours in between:


music friday: january 18, 1968

The top five from 51 years ago, from the Billboard charts:

5) Gladys Knight and the Pips, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine"

4) The Union Gap featuring Gary Puckett, "Woman, Woman"

3) The Monkees, "Daydream Believer"

2) John Fred and the Playboys, "Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)"

1) The Beatles, "Hello Goodbye"

A bonus: #36:

 


throwback thursday: thank you, bruce and ann

Five years ago today, I posted about an interview Ann Powers did with Bruce Springsteen about his then-new album, High Hopes.

I mentioned on Twitter that I had a favorite part of the interview, but that I wasn’t sure why. It comes when Bruce is describing what it was like making records when he was in his 20s: “It was terrible, you know. In truth, it was awful, an awful way to make records but it was the only way we knew how. Everybody simply suffered through it and the endless, endless, endless hours I can't begin to explain.”

Ann’s response was the part I loved most: “We thank you for those hours.”

I’ve had a couple of days to think about it, and I think I know now why this resonated so deeply with me. When I first heard she was going to interview Bruce, I thought she was a perfect choice, that people like myself would be well-represented. That one sentence is what I meant, when she stepped back momentarily from her professional role and briefly spoke as a fan. I am not the only Bruce fan to spend too much time wondering what I would say if I met him. Part of me thinks I’d just ask him to play “Back in Your Arms” the next time he comes to the Bay Area. That’s part of why people bring signs requesting this or that favorite song … it’s a way to talk to the man on the stage.

But the truth is (and from talking to friends over the years, I know I’m not alone in this), if I had a chance to meet Bruce Springsteen, the one and only thing I’d want to say is, “Thank you”.

So consider this blog post my way of thanking Ann for thanking Bruce on our behalf.

I included a video that is one of my favorites. Here it is again. As always, I tell people, look at the faces ... if you've never been to a Bruce concert and want to know what it's like, look at those faces. As wonderful as Springsteen on Broadway is, it is missing one thing: those faces.

 


by request: the magnificent seven (antoine fuqua, 2016)

Somehow, I have seen seven movies directed by Antoine Fuqua. Seven, without finding any of them great. Only one was above-average, Training Day. Denzel Washington won his second Oscar for that movie, his first as the leading man, and it was a worthy performance, even though he was better in Malcolm X. The rest were tolerable time-wasters ... Shooter, Olympus Has Fallen, The Equalizer and Equalizer 2. The worst by far was his first, The Replacement Killers, which completely wasted the U.S. debut of the immortal Chow Yun-Fat. There is something to be said for a director who can crank out one decent picture after another, even if I forget I've seen them a week later. I once wrote of Olympus Has Fallen, "Worth watching five years from now when you’re sitting at home, bored, and it shows up on TNT." The easy forgetfulness of these movies is actually a good thing in these circumstances ... when you watch it again on TV, you'll forget you've seen it and can enjoy it like new.

The Magnificent Seven fits in with all the rest: better than The Replacement Killers, not as good as Training Day, OK to have on in the background five years from now when it's on TV. The catch here, of course, is that it is a remake of a popular Western from 1960, although it's worth noting that the original was not a classic, despite the fond memories it evokes from Boomer fans of cowboy movies. You could spend a little time thinking about the ways the 2016 version updates the original ... Fuqua insisted on a diverse cast, so you've got an African-American lead, the female lead isn't useless, The Seven includes a Korean, a Native-American character played by an Alaskan, and a Mexican playing a Mexican. (The Mexicans in the original were played by two Germans, a Russian, and Charles Bronson, with Eli Wallach as the main bandido.) Fuqua also gets rid of the Great White Savior model ... no longer are The Seven there to save poor Mexicans. (Instead they are saving poor white people.)

There are things to like. The movie looks good, a bit dark maybe. The actors do their jobs. Importantly, Fuqua directs the big action scene in a way that keeps our bearings ... you always know who is where. (Isn't all that important, I suppose, since the main thing about the battle is the good guys are almost perfect shots.) There is no reason not to watch The Magnificent Seven ... well, it's kind of violent for a PG-13 movie. But there really isn't any reason to watch it, either.

 


the dreaded nostalgia, over leonard maltin

Back in the day, Leonard Maltin was shorthand for giant paperback books filled with thousand of mini-reviews of movies. Which is interesting in part because his first book came out in 1969, by which time a man named Steven Scheuer had been putting out similar tomes for 11 years. I mention this mostly because I was reminiscing about those review books, and the name Maltin was obviously part of my memories, but the specific memory I'm thinking of came before 1969. So I might have duplicated this little game in the post-Maltin years, but for now, a tip of the cap to Steven Scheuer.

Not sure it was even a game, more just something to do when I was bored. I'd pick up the book (which one doesn't really matter ... they were updated once a year) and flip through it. As I did, I'd fantasize ... I want to say I thought about running a rep cinema, but I don't think I knew what those were (talking about the mid-60s), so I was probably just pretending I had a late-night show showing movies on a UHF channel (no time for a history lesson ... for you youngsters out there, UHF channels were numbered 14-83 in the pre-cable days, and were inevitably independent channels showing old movies and wrestling). There were many such shows in those days ... there was The Old Sourdough and Wachikanoka, which was actually in the 70s so it doesn't quite fit my memory, and J Brown's Spartan Theater, which was also early-70s, so OK, I have no idea what I was doing playing this "game" in my bored youth (maybe it was Creature Features). But the "idea" was the same: flip through the movie guide, find a film at random, and imagine I was trying to convince the audience out there in TV Land to watch the movie.

I can't imagine anyone doing this today. Not just because it's lame, but also because we don't need those books anymore to imagine watching one of thousands of movies. We don't even have to imagine. We just go to On Demand, or Netflix, or Amazon Prime, or Hulu, or wherever, and start watching. Have an idea of what you want to watch, but don't know where to find it? Check out JustWatch, a website and app that tells you where each movie can be found ... even if it's only in a theater.

Here is a copy of an article from the Stanford newspaper in 1972. It's about the immortal J Brown, and was written by then-Stanford student Todd McCarthy, who went on to a long career as a film critic. Here's the link to the article:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Todd_McCarthy


angie tribeca, season 4

For those with long memories, Angie Tribeca is a child of Police Squad!, the short-lived series the led to the Naked Gun movies. It is stupid and silly, and you'll know after watching two minutes of any episode whether Angie Tribeca is your cup of tea. Season Four brings the total number of episodes up to 40, which is 34 more than Police Squad! ever got (although Angie hasn't gotten any feature-length movies yet).

The easiest thing for me to do is offer a couple of lists. Consider them a consumer guide ... if they sound funny to you, watch the show (it's on TBS, with the first three seasons on Hulu).

First list: some character names from the first three seasons.

Detective Jason "Jay" Geils. Lieutenant Pritikin Atkins. Dr. Scholls. Sgt Eddie Pepper. Mayor, then Vice-President Joe Perry and his wife, Katy. Diane Duran. Angie's mom Peggy, played by Peggy Lipton. Pierre Cardin. Jean Naté. Fisher Price. Special Agent Laurie Partridge. Samantha Stevens. Dr. Moreau. Betty Crocker.

Angie Tribeca has also managed to corral an amazing list of guest appearances (this list is far from complete):

Alfred Molina, James Franco, Heather Graham, Lisa Kudrow, Bill Murray, Gene Simmons, Aaron Carter, Joe Jonas, Michelle Dockery, Natalie Portman, Lizzy Caplan. Season Four added such actors as Anjelica Huston, Rose Byrne, Gina Torres, Carl Reiner, Kathryn Hahn, and Carol Burnett as the President of the United States.

And I haven't mentioned Jagger as Hoffman, a crucial member of the team. Jagger is a dog, as is Hoffman.

Meanwhile, Bobby Cannavale joined the cast as Angie's son Angela Geils, Jr. At the beginning of the season, Angie is getting out after spending 20 years in jail for murdering Angie Tribeca (I told you it was silly). When she emerges from jail, she looks the same, as do all her workmates. Cannavale is her son, and by the plot would appear to be around 22 years old, but neither he nor Rashida Jones wear any makeup to help them look different ages. There was the episode "Freezing Cold Prestige Drama" that parodied Fargo, and one called "Irrational Treasures" (I'll let you guess which movie that one takes on).

Hoffman may be the best joke the show has. Because it's the same joke every time ... a dog is doing police work ... and somehow it's as funny at the end of Season Four as it was at the beginning of Season One.

Image result for angie tribeca season 4 gif